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How can I be safe at work when my boss is a bit of a psycho?

4 December 2023

Happy workers are engaged and productive workers who contribute positively to their workplace. Managers are a vital component of employee wellbeing – so what happens when your boss is a bit of a psychopath?

Recent research from University of Waikato Occupational Psychologist Dr Anna Sutton provides valuable insights into the negative and surprisingly positive impacts of managerial psychopathic traits in the workplace.

She says, “Understanding these impacts is important because people don’t leave companies, they leave poor managers.”

Dr Sutton specialises in the application of psychology to understanding and improving our work lives and workplaces. She is particularly interested in worker authenticity – the ability of people to be their true selves at work, expressing their values and personality genuinely.

Her latest study, with Dr Madeleine Stapleton, explored the impacts of managerial psychopathy on workers.  They wanted to understand how psychopathic traits affect worker engagement, burnout, via the mediating factor of authenticity.

She explains, “The key traits we were interested in were boldness (fearlessness), meanness (callousness), and disinhibition (impulsivity).”

The study was conducted with full-time employees in New Zealand. Participants started by evaluating their managers’ psychopathic traits using a work-focused adaptation of a scientifically validated assessment of psychopathic personality traits.

They then completed questionnaires around their wellbeing, engagement, and sense of burn-out at their work.

She says, “We found that managerial boldness, characterized by confidence and charm, was a positive for employee engagement. When employees perceived their managers as bolder, they reported higher levels of authenticity and, subsequently, greater engagement with their work. Boldness in their managers acted as a resource that contributed to their increased enthusiasm and commitment.”

However, the research also showed that managerial meanness and disinhibition had negative effects on employee well-being. When managers were perceived as mean or disinhibited workers felt less able to be authentic and this contributed to burnout. Meaner and more disinhibited managers are known to use abusive behaviours and initiate more conflict, reducing the sense of safety at work.

“One of the questions that often comes up is ‘If you have a horrible boss and you’re in a difficult situation at work, can you really be yourself?'. We’ve found that authenticity served as a personal resource that employees could tap into to cope with challenging managerial behaviours.”

Dr Sutton points out that the study only looked at how employees perceived their managers and managers were not asked to rate their own psychopathic traits.

Dr Sutton said the next steps would be, “Finding out whether managers are able to recognise these traits in themselves. We also don’t know yet if there’s a way to help employees to find ways to protect or build their authenticity when they are dealing with meaner and more disinhibited managers –my lab is working on this now.”

The research publication, ‘When it’s not safe to be me: employee authenticity mediates the effect of perceived manager psychopathy on employee wellbeing’ can be accessed here.


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